For today’s WOVEMBER WORDS we explore an alternative regional term for ‘shepherd’ from the Romney Marshes on the Southern coast of England.
During the Medieval period, Romney Marsh was one of the most densely populated parts of Kent; by the middle of the 17th Century, it had become the least populous part. The port of Romney had silted up and no longer functioned and many marsh villages and farms were abandoned. Cultivated land was laid to pasture and bought up by absentee landowners.
It is from this time that the reputation of Romney Marsh for sheep farming begins. Flocks were many times larger than those in other parts of Kent and in 1700, there were an estimated 160,000 sheep on the Marsh. At the same time, the area was considered a very unhealthy place in which to live.
The absentee landlords, not wishing to live here themselves, employed local men to tend the flocks. These men became known as Lookers and are distinguished from shepherds by the fact that Lookers cared for the sheep of more than one owner, whereas shepherds were employed by a single landowner. The Lookers lived in the villages and had to travel some distance to tend the sheep.
This necessitated the construction of sheephouses (often referred to nowadays as Lookers’ huts). The Looker kept tools, medicines and spare clothing in these huts and would sometimes spend the night in them. During the lambing period they may spend up to six weeks in them. The huts were simple brick built buildings with peg tile roofs, almost always a single room with a fireplace. They were surrounded by a complex of pens within hich sheep could be contained for inspection and treatment.
Over the next two hundred years, sheep farming methods on Romney Marsh became famous throughout the world. The Romney Marsh breed are hardy stock, resistant to foot rot and good for both meat and wool. They were exported to Australia, New Zealand, the USA and the Falkland Islands.
– Text taken from a very useful leaflet entitled ‘Sheephouses & Lookers of Romney Marsh’, published by the Kent Wildlife Trust and available at the Romney Marsh Visitor Centre.
At the centre there is also a reconstructed Lookers’ hut for use in workshops and education about the history of sheep farming on Romney Marsh. For further information please contact the Visitor Centre manager Liz Grant, Telephone +44(0)1797 369487 or +44(0)7876 591900.